Friday, 12 February 2010

Welcome to The House of No Fun

What do you do when a problem you’re facing has no good solution? That is the issue we are now facing with our house dilemma.
Our problem is that our current house is too small for us. It’s undeniable: there are just too many things in the house for us to maintain sustainable family life. I guess you could argue this is the hidden cost of having a child.
So far, we have identified four potential solutions to this problem:
  1. Buy another house, move there and sell our current house.
  2. Extend our current house with a second floor and live in the house while it’s being extended.
  3. Extend our current house with a second floor and rent another place to live in while our house is being extended.
  4. Forget our size problems and use the money to travel more frequently.

I have to say that I am seriously tempted by that fourth option. Just yesterday, for example, I watched this nature program about the Rocky Mountains together with our two and a half year old Dylan and wished I could take him (and myself, for that matter) there. Well, why not? My ancestors certainly lived in smaller confines than I currently do while I grew up in an apartment of roughly similar proportions to my current house. And we all survived.
Another reason why I like the fourth option is the obvious cultural drive that pushes us to have a bigger house. As in, do we truly need a bigger house, or is it that we want one because everyone we know strives towards a bigger house and Aussie culture in general is all about having your own castle? I sure don’t want to end up like the couple from Revolutionary Road.
On the other hand, one obvious reason for our spatial frontiers is to do with modern lifestyles and the fact we’re much more affluent than previous generations were. Our entertainment system occupies most of our living room; my parents have a TV on its side. My desktop with its peripherals needs a room of its own (albeit a smallish one); my parents never had a computer of their own, and when I had one it was in my own room and it was nothing like the empire I have today. And Dylan, our son, already has more toys than I ever had (by a very large margin) and more books than most adults have.
Can I give my home theater up? Not for what I would consider a life worth living. Can we bite the bullet and continue to live as we do in smallish confines? Yes, but it’s going to get worse the older Dylan gets.

Which sent us looking for a house to buy.
I have already spent many a word in this forum dealing with the deep antagonism I have developed towards most real estate agents. To sum things up, I view them as a hurdle to a real estate transaction, not as a supporter, and I can clearly see the linkage between living a healthy life and avoiding interactions with the majority of them. Which sort of makes it hard to buy a house.
Other factors to do with preventing us from buying a house are the entire auction mechanism that is so deeply frustrating. Houses’ open for inspection times tend to all be concentrated during Dylan’s sleep time (they’re obviously geared towards the investor), and any investment in ensuring the house you’re about to bid on is in sound quality are very risky when you know you’re going to be outbid at an auction with the house’s true asking price being a hundred thousand more than what it is actually advertised for (if not more than that). Actually, any emotional attachment you might have to the house is risky given the auction system; it alienates you by its very definition the same way you won't want to become best friends with someone going overseas tomorrow for life.
Ultimately, it’s the prices that kill us. We’ve identified several houses we’d be happy to live in; some turned out to have carefully hidden issues (e.g., public sewage plumbing running through the house), but in general these houses end up costing more than we could afford. Sure, we can compromise by moving further from the center, where we can find truly beautiful houses in prices we could afford; but would this qualify as an improvement?
Ultimately, the buy another house option suffers from a simple financial equation: assuming we’re comparing apples with apples, it would be cheaper for us to extend than it would be to buy. It makes sense: instead of paying someone else to do the work for us we’d do it ourselves. But there’s a hidden factor there: our house is located next to commission housing, which severely reduces its value; however, since this proximity issue doesn’t bother us in the least, we perceive ourselves to be living in a house much more expensive than the market would say it is. And a downgrade, as we all know, is not something one cannot easily accepts.
We all but gave up the buying a house option. Each time we look at realestate or domain we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. At the prices, at the agents, at the way things are.

Which sends us to the extension option, an option that – at least on paper, as in when we look at the drawings – we like. Not only would we be able to maintain our current status quo – shop where we shop, visit the doctors we’re familiar with, etc – we should also be able to afford this alternative without risking the banks breathing down our necks [more than they already do].
The catch? The catch is that all witnesses lead me to suspect the period of time during which our house will be extended, somewhere between four to six months, is going to be hell on earth. Yesterday I gathered enough evidence to change the status of this argument from witness based to personal experience.
We had an electrician in to install two ceiling fans, one in our room and one in Dylan’s. We have one in our living room and we really like it, so we thought we might as well do it before the extension when the ceiling becomes not as accessible as it is now.
Between sorting things around to minimize damage to furniture (empty the rooms where the work takes place in, cover remaining furniture), running around to deal with issues as they come, running after a Dylan overexcited by all these amazing events taking place around him, and me not feeling too well to begin with, I felt like a total wreck. I was sweaty, I was dirty (dust seems to attach itself really well to sweat), and I was tired. Now, imagine this experience, but multiplied in severity, taking place all day long, every day, over a good few months. Imagine living in a construction site; imagine having tradesmen going in and our of your house as if it’s a train station; imagine trying to move our stuff around when everything is a construction site and when we don’t have much room to move stuff to anyway (as evidenced yesterday); imagine accessing the house every day when it’s surrounded by a fleet of alien cars; imagine the dust and the dirt we’d have to sleep in; and imagine how it would be like when we’re sick, which does tend to happen to us on a fortnightly basis.
Clearly, even my limited imagination indicates this would be totally unbearable (with the proviso that I might have set my imagination too free). This is an experience I wouldn’t want to go through no matter how much money it would save me. And then there’s my biggest fear (yes, worse than my fear of cockroaches): This is an experience that could easily get so out of hand it could drive our family apart.

Stop your sobbing, I hear you say. Just move out while the extension is going ahead.
Fine, only that it’s not as easy as it sounds. With the way Melbourne’s house rental scene is going, it’s pretty hard to find a place to rent as it is; trying to rent one for six months or less is very hard, and trying to find one close to our current house is bordering the impossible. The real estate agents are not helpful either: their websites do not specify which houses are available for short term rentals, which makes identifying relevant prospects much harder than it should. It all sounds so trivial, but it looks as if us waiting for a suitable place to rent could delay the extension project long enough to defeat its purpose altogether.
Oh, and there’s the cost issue. Even assuming we’d happily settle for a flat (which we would), we’re still talking probably $400 or more, per week, for rental costs. Then there’s the cost of moving. Overall, we’re talking about a cost nearing the $20,000 mark once we add things like duplicate insurance policies and utility bills. Effectively, the cost of running a household would be doubled for the duration of the project, mortgage included.
There are other issues, more minor in nature: How are we going to secure the house and its belongings, and how will we ensure the builders don’t damage things (as they surely would, to one extent or another).

As I find myself changing my preferences between the above four options on an hourly basis, the one conclusion that is dead obvious is that things are not simple at all. Again, the question comes down to this: what are we to do when the problem we’re facing has no good solution?
Well, I’ll do what one needs to do in such circumstances. I’ll specify the problem, the potential solutions, the evidence at my disposal and the various related arguments. And I’ll do so as transparently as I can in the hope of learning while going through the motions and in hope of constructive feedback.


Sarah said...

Have you thought about looking into house sitting? Maybe you could do that for short term and I'm not sure if there are costs associated with that?

Moshe Reuveni said...

Interesting idea I haven't thought of. Will look at it, thanks.